A small college’s symbolic center has always been its library, but at Bowdoin, it doesn’t look like anything special. Hawthorne-Longfellow Library does its job without any of Hubbard’s gothic panache, and by now wears its fluorescence and bad textiles with a tired comfort.
The library instead comes alive through the fulfillment of elaborate routines—shelving, cataloguing and loaning its treasures to the rest of us. There isn’t much wonder that goes into the average swipe, beep and stamp of checking out a book, but to trace these patterns as they wind through the unthinkable breadth of the collection is a bit exhilarating.
I worked at the library over the summer of 2013, doing the ostensibly monotonous... I accepted bins of books from the UPS guy, rifled through them, and placed them on hold shelves.
I gathered long loaves of them that accumulated in the returns, gingerly locating their homes among the stacks. I swaddled them in bubble wrap and sent them away for members of far-flung faculties to thumb through.
But to describe it so matter-of-factly is disingenuous. What I was really doing was submerging my attention momentarily into thousands of little bits of printed esoterica. I was absorbing the idioms, typographies, illustrations, humor, prejudices and aesthetics of generations. I was sort of in heaven, but in a diminutive heaven that usually must be reserved for trainspotters, monks or other obsessives.
It was a perfunctory paradise. The beeps of barcodes and the flipping of pages marked the journeys of thousands of miles and hundreds of years. Alan Watts would give way to Argentinian anthropology, or to a nineteenth century ad for A1 Steak Sauce.
From a crusty volume of comparative odontology I learned that the tusk of a narwhal is really its overgrown right incisor, while the left invariably atrophies. One day a resolute homeless man stared at me from a photo essay, holding a sign on which he had scrawled, “One day I will build an empire.”
It was not exciting in the same way as, say, watching basketball is. It was closer to the magnetism of a tumblr feed, although stupendously physical. Even in an age where the wealth of the world’s knowledge is available virtually, there was a woozy feeling brought on by actually helping to manage a staggeringly large chunk of the written record of our civilization.
The monotonies of the job did not disappear, but merely multiplied and layered themselves so as to become quietly sublime. It’s an unnatural feeling, for example, to be able to compare the collected writings of different American presidents by weight. Or to happen upon the ominous cover of WIRED magazine’s Y2K edition, now yellowing in the basement. Or to pore over mountains of antique defense maps, tracing exotic archipelagos and villages in the Caucasus that I will never visit.
If there’s a lasting effect of the library’s orbit, it can best be described as a patient insatiability, holding onto the impossible hope of following the apocryphal footsteps of the Renaissance humanist who was said to have read every published book.
Like the determined man in the photo, it is the promise of an eventual empire within the mind. I don’t work in the library anymore, but I still have a sense of an inexorable drift, not unlike that of the narwhal’s right tooth. As if I might spiral lazily outwards, past the barrier of my corporeal self and into the sea of printed words.
-Leo Shaw, Class of 2015